Kentucky has many types of caterpillars, not just the dreaded Eastern tent caterpillar, which seems to be the most common.
The types of caterpillars in Kentucky range from harmless and beneficial species to those that can cause health problems.
Here, you’ll find an overview of some of the most common types of caterpillars in Kentucky. You will also learn how to get rid of them should they become too much of a nuisance.
1. Monarch Caterpillar
The Monarch Caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, is commonly seen in North America. It has dark brown forewings, yellow hind wings, and black veins and margins.
These distinctive caterpillars are toxic because they contain cardenolide toxins that make them distasteful to predators such as birds and mammals.
Their bright colors are aposematic, warning signs that inform potential predators of their toxicity. However, monarch caterpillars do not make sounds or have stingers.
The adult’s wingspan ranges from 3 1/2 to 6 inches, making it one of our giant butterflies. These types of caterpillars in Kentucky are also some of our prettiest!
It is easy to identify a cabbageworm caterpillar with its sizeable green body, white stripes, and longhorn. The cabbageworm caterpillar is one of the most common types of caterpillars in Kentucky.
It is one of many butterflies and moths that feed on Brassica vegetables like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale.
It has a large green body with white stripes running down its side. Two long horns stick out from behind its head.
Cabbage Worms look different from other caterpillars because they have developed these horns to protect themselves from birds. Cabbage worms are approximately 3⁄4-inch (2 centimeters) long when fully grown.
3. Woolly Bear
The Woolly Bear has no silk-making glands. It is one of a few types of caterpillars in Kentucky that do not spin cocoons.
Instead, it wraps its legs together, rests on a branch, or stays motionless to stay camouflaged. Because their habitat depends largely on cold weather, these caterpillars can only be found during fall and early spring.
Most Woolly Bears are brown with lighter markings to mimic lichen on tree bark.
However, some variations have been spotted that are green or black. These colors often fade as they grow older.
Woolly Bears do not sting or bite when touched. They may release an unpleasant odor if they feel threatened by being held too tightly—it’s best to admire them from afar!
4. Viceroy Caterpillar
Viceroy caterpillars are also common types of caterpillars in Kentucky and are often found feeding on sycamore trees.
Viceroy is medium-sized caterpillars (up to 2 inches) with a distinctive white diagonal stripe that runs along each side. They grow up to 1 inch per week and can reach 5 inches long before pupating.
Once they enter their chrysalis stage, they typically emerge as adult monarch butterflies within 8–10 days. Viceroy caterpillars should not be eaten as they are poisonous if ingested by humans.
5. Large Maple Spanworm
The Large Maple Spanworms are common types of caterpillars in Kentucky, with colors brown, black, and yellow as a butterfly. It lives in maple trees.
If a Large Maple Spanworm eats poison ivy berries while pregnant, her babies will be born with horns on their heads.
The horns get so big that they must stay inside holes in trees for about three days after birth. They remain there until their horns are small enough to fit through tree branches.
In addition to being excellent climbers, some Large Maple Spanworms can eat five times their body weight daily!
6. Variegated Fritillary Caterpillar
The Variegated Fritillary caterpillar is a beautiful colorful butterfly, but it typically causes problems for homeowners.
The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves of shrubs and bushes that have been chemically treated to control other pests.
Since these types of caterpillars in Kentucky are born with an immunity to pesticides, they can munch on leaves without fear.
Once hatched, Variegated Fritillary Caterpillars typically feast throughout late spring and early summer until they mature into adult butterflies.
7. Curve-Lined Owlet Moth Caterpillar
The curve-lined owlet moth caterpillars are types of caterpillars in Kentucky with green insects with three white stripes on their body and measure about 1.3 to 2.2 inches long.
The owlet moth caterpillar feeds on clover, alfalfa, alfalfa bindweed, hollyhock, and other plants found throughout North America and Europe.
There are two stages to its life cycle. The first stage occurs inside a barrel-shaped egg casing that is only visible when it splits open. Eggs take about a week to hatch into second-stage caterpillars (inchworms).
These caterpillars feed for a few weeks before spinning cocoons and entering their pupal phase. After about ten days, adult moths emerge from their cocoons.
This species is not considered harmful to humans or animals because it can be irritating and does not bite or sting.
8. Tobacco Hornworm
As its name suggests, tobacco hornworms feed on members of the nightshade family. These types of caterpillars in Kentucky are known to devour tomato plants and other garden vegetables.
If you find one of these looping green and yellow larvae infesting your home, immediately contact a pest control service.
The tobacco hornworm can grow up to six inches long and contains a string that can irritate humans. It’s important not to touch or handle them; if you need to remove one from your property, use gloves or tongs.
9. White-Marked Tussock Caterpillar
The variegated fritillary caterpillars, named Euptoieta Claudia, are types of caterpillars in Kentucky. In adults, it has five white spots on its wings and varies in color from orange and yellow to black.
However, as larvae, it’s got a much more striking appearance that makes it easy to pick out among others. It has two large horns on its rear end and alternating orange, black and white lines all over its body.
The caterpillar’s natural habitat includes open areas with flowers, primarily meadows, parks, or farmlands. A mature caterpillar will eat leaves from such plants as aster or goldenrod species.
10. Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar
The milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes eagle) is a geometer moth native to eastern North America.
Although it is widely distributed and rare, it is locally common in New York City and western Pennsylvania. They grow to a wingspan of approximately 1 cm (0.4 inches).
The adults emerge in May or June and may have one or two generations per year. Eggs are laid on the leaves of plants in the family Asclepiadaceae, especially common milkweed.
Larvae feed on various milkweed species, including swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, and dogbane. These types of caterpillars in Kentucky can be controlled by spraying with Bacillus thuringiensis var.
11. Banded Tussock Caterpillar
Also known as spotted tussock moths, banded tussocks have bright orange-yellow markings on top, with a yellow underside.
Their scientific name is Eumorpha fasciatus. These types of caterpillars in Kentucky eat privet, ash, and lilac trees.
They are known to be highly venomous and should not be handled. Banded tussocks grow to 1 3⁄4 inches long and are most commonly seen from May until June.
12. Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar
The Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar is a type of caterpillar in Kentucky that is relatively easy to spot. It’s a black, hairy caterpillar with large yellow and green spots on its sides.
This caterpillar is found all over eastern North America and measures six inches to a foot long.
The Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar is poisonous, so don’t try to touch it! A bite from one could cause symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, or even death.
Luckily, these giant caterpillars are more afraid of you than you are of them.
13. Parsley Caterpillar
From a distance, it might seem like these caterpillars are sporting little green mohawks. These fuzzy types of caterpillars in Kentucky that dine on parsley have tufts of yellow or white hair on their heads.
The mohawk varies from side to side depending on which stage they are in. When they are young, they look more like two dots over their eyes, but as they grow, so does their hair.
By mature adulthood, these mohawks can be up to 2 inches wide! They also sport long antennae and yellow bands that resemble fancy neckties near their shoulders.
14. Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Caterpillar
The eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar is a striking black and yellow type of caterpillar in Kentucky. It features two large eye spots on its back and two smaller ones on its sides.
The only other coloration that you’ll find on it is a pair of orange stripes below each large eye spot.
These types of caterpillars in Kentucky feed on many plants, including tomatoes, apple trees, and parsley.
They are very aggressive predators, so they can harm gardens. Fortunately, they’re not too difficult to control with insecticides like BT or permethrin.
Eastern tiger swallowtails use these toxins to defend themselves as well! You may experience an upset stomach or dizziness if you eat one because they’re poisonous!
15. Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar
Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillars are usually found throughout much of North America and parts of South America.
The caterpillar is black with a thin yellow stripe that runs down its back and two thick yellow stripes on its sides. They may vary from 1 to 2 inches long and are covered in short black spines.
Host plants include spicebushes, citrus plants, and members of Rutaceae, such as bitter orange and sassafras trees. These types of caterpillars in Kentucky can be found from May through September.
16. Cecropia Moth Caterpillar
The cecropia moth caterpillar is one of many types of caterpillars in Kentucky. Despite its name, it’s a butterfly.
The cecropia has striking green wings, a giant black-and-white zigzag pattern, and orange lines below them.
This butterfly is primarily active during spring, summer, and fall. The cecropia moth grows 3 inches long and feeds on leaves from trees like ash, elm, maple, oak, sweetgum—and cherry trees! As you might imagine, it is often mistaken for a poisonous snake due to its size and coloring.
17. Monkey Slug
The Monkey Slug (also known as a horsehair worm) is often found under rocks or logs and can grow up to 12 inches long.
The parasite’s most distinguishing characteristic is its bright orange coloration, and two pairs of tentacles emerge from it.
Despite their unappealing name, these types of caterpillars in Kentucky pose no threat to humans. Instead, they feed on other species, such as snails and earthworms.
These caterpillars are harmless and beneficial to gardeners and farmers because they consume earthworms without killing them. This makes it easier for farmers to cultivate worms for aquaculture farms.
18. Spotted Apatelodes Caterpillar
You might be surprised to learn that one of your most common caterpillar species is an exotic invader. The spotted apatelodes caterpillar was imported from Japan and accidentally released in Kentucky about 100 years ago.
This type of caterpillar in Kentucky is now a pest for apple and cherry growers. It can eat through entire branches, which does little to improve its reputation among farmers.
However, you might like them because they’re a lot less gross than many other types of caterpillars.
19. Io Caterpillar
The Io caterpillar can usually be found on oak trees (Quercus). It is native to North America and Canada. It is light green with two black rings on its body.
These larvae are typically over an inch long, but they can grow up to three inches when fully grown.
The life cycles of these types of caterpillars in Kentucky can last one year or longer. Io caterpillar larvae prefer oak leaves, acorns, and sweet gum tree sap.
They do not spin cocoons. Instead, they burrow into the soil to hibernate during winter months. These types of caterpillars will remain active all year round in warmer climates.
They will feed at night and hide during daylight hours. If threatened by predators, they will regurgitate their food as a defense mechanism.
There are many types of caterpillars in Kentucky. As any new animals are introduced to the habitat, it’s essential to ensure that you can identify them.
Not all caterpillars are harmful, but taking steps now will go a long way toward creating a safe. Contact your local biologist immediately if you see anything strange or seem to have been bitten by a caterpillar. Thank you again for reading!